Bible Gateway interviewed Rich Wilkerson Jr. (@richwilkersonjr) about his book, Friend of Sinners: Why Jesus Cares More About Relationship Than Perfection (Thomas Nelson, 2018).
What were the implications to Jesus being called the “friend of sinners”?
Rich Wilkerson Jr.: People were implying that Jesus was in the wrong place at the wrong time; that he was doing something that wasn’t right. However, when they called Jesus the “friend of sinners” they were actually declaring his mission. That’s why Jesus came; he came for relationship with everyone—with sinners.
How do Christians try to correct people before they connect with people and why do you say that’s wrong?
Rich Wilkerson Jr.: Anytime we start with people’s behavior before we start with relationship we’re headed in the wrong direction. Often times people view church, God, and Jesus as a list of rules, rather than an invitation for relationship. The model of Jesus is that he would find a connection to it: he would speak to your pain, speak to your hurt, he would befriend you, he would invite you to dinner, he would go to your house. And it was out of relationship that he would then speak the truth. The Bible says that Jesus came in grace and truth, but may we first understand that grace comes first; truth comes second.
What was the most important message Jesus communicated?
Rich Wilkerson Jr.: The most important message that Jesus communicated was, I believe, John 3:16, that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus was communicating that God loves the community, that God loves the world. The world is full of broken, hurting people; the world is full of sinners. But Jesus was being direct to say I came for sinners; I came because I love you; I came to save you.
What stories in the Bible demonstrate how Jesus was a friend of sinners?
Rich Wilkerson Jr.: There are many stories in the Bible that show Jesus was a friend of sinners. Luke chapter 19—as he meets Zacchaeus, the tax collector—he goes to his house, and has a meal. One of his disciples, Matthew, also known as Levi, was another tax collector. Jesus went to the party with the tax collectors. It was there the Pharisees criticized him and said, “what is he doing?” Jesus replied, “I didn’t come for the healthy, I came for the sick.” Story after story, Jesus is with sinners.
Why is it difficult for people to be the kind of friend that Jesus was to others?
Rich Wilkerson Jr.: It’s difficult for us because, down deep, we want to control people; we want people to get what they deserve. Yet, Jesus—the only one who was without sin—he doesn’t offer us the law, condemnation, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Instead, Jesus offers grace and Jesus gives mercy. And it’s difficult for us to grant mercy and for us to give grace.
How do we underestimate Jesus and what is the result of that?
Rich Wilkerson Jr.: I think many times we think Jesus just came to tell us how to live better on earth. But when we see Jesus only from that viewpoint, we’re turning him into a life coach, or we’re turning him into a leadership guru. But he’s God, not just a man. He’s the God Man, and he came to save us and offer us eternity. When we take his lessons and his teaching and all we think about them are good principles, then we underestimate all he came to do in our lives.
How do daily pressures get in the way of being the kind of friend Jesus wants us to be?
Rich Wilkerson Jr.: I think, many times we get too focused on ourselves that we forget about God and we forget about other people. If you’re only focused on yourself, you’ll never be able to serve others. Jesus came to be the greatest servant of all. We’re called to serve one another and love one another. And the more I fall in love with Jesus, the more it makes me want to love other people. If you love Jesus, show it to someone else.
How risky is it for Christians today to be called the “friend of sinners” and should they care?
Rich Wilkerson Jr.: I think it’s risky because religion runs rampant. Religion is all about what we must do, and it’s about controlling. A relationship with God is all about that Jesus has done all the work. And so, when we start behaving like Jesus by loving our fellow man, by being the guest of sinners and the friend of sinners, religious people will always criticize; religious people will always get upset; religious people will always say something. I think the risk is more than worth it, and no, I do not believe that we should care. I think we should live for the audience of one: his name is Jesus.
What do you mean when you write about being “comfortably uncomfortable”?
Rich Wilkerson Jr.: I think as Christians, we must understand that once we’ve been filled by God with his love, we’re called to be spilled out for God and show his love. And the only way we’re going to do this is to live outside of our comfort zone.
The more you follow Jesus, the more you realize he came and comforted me. Now I’m called to be uncomfortable for him. God comforts me, and then I get uncomfortable for him. The more you mature in the Lord, the more you realize that reaching out to people, it can be uncomfortable. But as Christians and as followers of Jesus, we have to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable.
What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?
Rich Wilkerson Jr.: I love that the Bible says in Romans, “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.” I love the fact that before I ever knew about Jesus—before I ever called him Lord and Savior—he had already paid the price, because his love for me cannot be dictated on my love for him. He loves me because he is love.
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App?
Rich Wilkerson Jr.: I’m so thankful for Bible Gateway. I use the app, I use the website: I find verses there often, I use it for my sermon prep. I think it’s such an incredible resource! I’m so thankful for it!
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Rich Wilkerson Jr.: I really believe in this project. I really believe in this message. I really want people to meet the God that came for us; the God who loves us. He’s the God that’s close to the broken-hearted; he’s the friend of sinners. And once we’ve met the friend of sinners, we too are called to be friends of sinners.
Friend of Sinners: Why Jesus Cares More About Relationship Than Perfection is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.
Bio: Rich Wilkerson Jr. and his wife, DawnCheré, pastor VOUS Church, a meeting place of faith, creativity, and diversity in Miami, Florida. Every June, they also host thousands of young adults at the annual VOUS Conference in South Beach. He is the author of Friend of Sinners: Why Jesus Cares More About Relationship Than Perfection and Sandcastle Kings: Meeting Jesus in a Spiritually Bankrupt World, and is an internationally recognized speaker who has logged over two million air miles preaching the gospel around the globe.
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